Canada·First Person

How my conservative, immigrant Asian parents came to better understand racial injustice

The Black Lives Matter protests were a turning point in my relationship with my parents, who had previously been too afraid to speak up because of their experiences in the Philippines, writes Pia Co.

Immigrants might have legitimate fears for staying silent, and it’s our job as the next gen to bridge the gap

The Black Lives Matter protests were a turning point in my relationship with my parents, who had previously been too afraid to speak up because of their experiences in the Philippines, writes Pia Co. (Nicole Jang)

This First Person article is the experience of Pia Co, a first-generation Filipina-Chinese Canadian and student journalist in Edmonton. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ

There was a point in my life where I doubted that my traditional, immigrant parents and I would ever see eye-to-eye on social justice issues. I was convinced that, after numerous failed attempts at difficult conversations, they were set in their ways and I was set in mine. 

I have never been so happy to be so wrong.

My parents had always cautioned me about speaking up on social activism topics in a way that could call attention to myself. It's the classic model minority dilemma: keep your head down, get good grades, then work hard — and definitely don't do anything that calls out racial injustice, especially anything that might have an impact on your application for permanent residence or citizenship.  

The first time I recall butting heads with my mom was when I used my brand new Facebook account to speak about the cyberbullying faced by Amanda Todd, the B.C. teen who died by suicide in 2012. My mother pleaded with me not to get involved. We got into a fight about it and didn't find closure. 

I thought that my mother's constant worry about my social justice activism was unreasonable. As an adult, I now recognize that her fears and worries were absolutely legitimate. As a Filipino person who was born and raised in the Philippines through Ferdinand Marcos's authoritarian regime, my mother was more than aware of the deadly consequences that social justice activists might face.

My father is ethnically Chinese; his grandfather stowed away on a boat to the Philippines to escape the social and political circumstances in China. Living in poverty, my father's family could not afford to apply for citizenship, and my father remained stateless until he became a Canadian citizen at 51. My father was concerned about anything we could do that might damage his efforts at securing his own family's citizenships.  

Pia Co had butted heads against her conservative, immigrant Asian parents views on issues of racial injustice. The BLM movements were a turning point in the family dynamic. (Pia Co)

As an adult, I now understand that my parents' initial opposition to my desire to be a progressive activist and their mixed feelings about social justice issues were entangled with our cultural values and their love and concern for me. To them, protecting me outweighed any duty I told them I had to our greater community.

The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer last year sparked massive protests through the Black Lives Matter movement — and was an important turning point in my relationship with my parents. Like others, they were horrified to see the video of Floyd, with his neck pinned under the officer's knee, repeatedly calling out "I can't breathe."  Then news came of Breonna Taylor's death, shot by Louisville, Ky. police in her own home. All of this was compounded by the ongoing pandemic, a time when people have to be extra reliant on their government and by extension, the police. 

A few days after Floyd's death, my mom asked me why police were frequently not held responsible for police-related deaths of Black people. I told her how policing in North America actually has its roots in slave-catching

What the Black Lives Matter movement looks like in 2021

7 months ago
Activists say it is now time to put pressure on politicians and businesses that made promises last year to take quantifiable action toward making Canada anti-racist. 8:35

Later, my dad asked me why there were riots alongside the BLM protests; to him, the riots detracted from the message they were spreading. We discussed how oftentimes the state won't pay attention to peaceful demonstrations. I reasoned that in a better world, riots would not happen, but in a world where Black parents have to have a conversation with their children to always co-operate with police or else they might be killed, riots may have to happen.

The targeted killings of six Asian women in Atlanta brought the issues of racism even more to the forefront. My family was aware of Asian elders in Canada who were physically assaulted and faced racist taunts during the pandemic, but these attacks struck close to home. You see, we had lived in Atlanta when I was a child. Shattered by the news and thinking of my own parents' safety, I penned an editorial in my university paper calling for Asian youth to stand up and advocate against anti-Asian racism for their community. 

Helen Park Truong, 34, and Sarah Tang, 31, embrace on March 19, 2021 after laying flowers at a makeshift memorial outside the Gold Spa following the deadly shootings of eight people in the Atlanta area. Pia Co says the attacks surfaced her underlying fears of anti-Asian hate that her parents might face someday. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

My parents, who were hesitant for me to even post an opinion on Facebook about a decade ago, shared my editorial with all of their friends. After years and years of disagreements, openly discussing social justice issues with my parents finally feels like it is paying off.

I am convinced now, more than ever, that social justice activism must meaningfully include people from older generations. This process is not easy, and can be very emotionally draining. 

The best advice I can give to those of you who are beginning to broach topics of social justice with your parents is this: listen. Listen to your parents and their experiences, and their points of view. You can't expect them to understand what you're advocating for, if you don't find the time to hear their reasons for not having the same beliefs. You may even find you'll learn a lot from your parents, and you can both learn more about how to improve your social justice advocacy together.

Do you have a compelling personal story that can bring understanding or help others? We want to hear from you. Here's more info on how to pitch to us.


Pia Co is a first-generation immigrant settler and journalist based in Amiskwaciwâskahikan. She was most recently the editor-in-chief of The Gateway at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

Illustration by Nicole Jang, a Chinese Canadian illustrator and designer from Vancouver.


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